Jobless Claims and the Madness of Numbers

A couple of points about the weekly jobless claims and the often useless absolute numbers.

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Jobless claims--the weekly measure of first-time applications for unemployment benefits--dropped by 12,000 last week to 646,000. The drop is good, but there are other numbers that would seem troubling: nearly 5.5 million people continued to collect unemployment in the week ended March 7--a record high topping previous weeks of record highs.

Also, the four-week moving average of continuing claims hit a record high of nearly 5.3 million.

But remember that the scope of our labor force is huge--about 154 million, or double what it was in the late 1960s--and no one would argue that our job market isn't lousy. That means you can probably expect to set absolute number records when it comes to data such as jobless claims.

It's probably more useful to look at the insured unemployment rate. That jumped 0.2 percentage points to 4.1 percent. It's the highest since 1982. Not great--but also not Great Depression.

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